Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sequel? Nay, Season.

With the TV season drawing to a close, my mind has been on a couple of excellent finales and the renewal of a series I'm quite enjoying (not ubiquitous, I realize). In general, it seems folks look forward to the next season of TV show they enjoy more than a sequel to a film they've enjoyed. Film sequels tend to be regarded with skepticism, and often, rightly so. It seems game sequels are regarded in the same way, but I'm starting to think it might be more accurate to think of them more like TV seasons.

Games are software, soup to nuts, and I think if the audience at large would think of them in that context first and foremost, we'd be better off. Some developers, e.g. Valve and Criterion, make it patently obvious they think of their games as software, with frequent updates and iteration. But if we have to think about them in terms of other media, game sequel as another season seems the most appropriate.

Obviously, some games lend themselves to this comparison readily, such as annual sports franchises or Telltale and other's episodic games. But this comparison seems to make sense for other sequels as well. Film sequels often feel pandering or unnecessary. Some equal or surpass their originals, but I'd say it's probably around 10-20% that do so. With games, the odds are far better. I'd say you've got at least even odds, if not better.

There's a mountain of examples, but far more think of Warcraft II than Warcraft. Thief II is often cited as the best in the series. Between Fallout and Fallout 2, folks seem split about 50/50. I'll say that Burnout: Paradise is the best entry in the series, hands down. Halo, Fable, Civilization; the list goes on and on. There's obviously contention and disagreement, but with film sequels, consensus that it's "not as good as the original" is the status quo.

Additionally, games have a large business/development incentive to create sequels that films do not. A great deal of the cost of any game is in the creation of the core technology (engine, toolset, pipelines, etc.). Sequels can hopefully avoid a lot of the core tech cost and focus on content.

With film, there's little connection between the cost of making an original and making its sequel. Pirates of the Caribbean more than doubled its production costs between its first and third entries. But game sequels ought to be cheaper than originals, unless the developer is doing something completely daft. I'd be absolutely shocked if Bioshock 2 cost anywhere as much as Bioshock and its production time was certainly shorter.

There's lots of awful, pandering game sequels out there, don't get me wrong. And there are some long running series that should probably be put out to pasture. But unlike films, game sequels seem to surpass their originals at a decent rate. I think everyone would benefit if game sequels were approached with a little less derision and a little optimism, as we often approach new seasons of TV.

Or maybe I'm just drunk thinking about Lost's final season. Quite possibly.

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Blogger Graham said...

Yeah, I definitely agree. I think the word 'sequel' is simply tainted by movies. And 'franchise' is tainted by fast-food. Really, if a developer is willing to put more work into an art set, a story, a set of mechanics, an interface; to take a game we know and love and make it a better experience -- why would we not want that? As you say, many of the best games of all time are sequels and knockoffs.

I think the real problem was that in the late 90's and early 2000's, there was such a glut of sequels and such a lack of innovation. (Or at least, that was the perception.) So my thought is that it's not so much that people don't like sequels in gaming, but rather that it appears to be a zero-sum game to most people: More sequels equals less originals.

Honestly, I haven't heard any of my rational freinds crying about about sequels in games lately. For myself in fact, I have been turning to the big-budget franchises to take a break from digging for diamonds in the indie rough. As far as zero-sum game goes, I think that's simply not the issue at the moment. Right now, there's lots of exciting things happening in gaming, and part of that is long-running franchises getting ambitious sequels are a fundamental part of that (come on, Starcraft II!!!).

A final point regarding TV shows: In addition to no one having issues with TV shows spanning seasons, people also don't have problems with trilogies. If people are told up front (or through the story) to expect more after the end of the first game/season/show, then they are unphased and even expectant when it happens. Games that establish strong universes in which multiple stories can take place (Diablo, Neverwinter Nights, Bioshock, Fallout), as well as games that express themselves simple as a perfection of mechanical form (Smash Brothers, Street Fighter, Gradius, Madden) are able to get away with sequels, because they contain an inherent promise, "Stick around! There's more to see here!"

May 18, 2009 at 12:44 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Graham Your comment got me thinking about one of the biggest problems episodic games have, namely managing audience expectations.

Folks who have tried to do episodic games (no offense to Valve, but their Half-Life episodes ain't really) find that the audience, and especially reviewers, expect some significant differences between episodic installments. Even if two episodes come five months apart, a nontrivial amount of people will sneer and say "What's new here?" In terms of development time, five months is *nothing.* Yet some expect rich, entirely distinct new features.

I don't look at seasons two and three of House and harangue them for sameness. Hugh Laurie satisfied and continues to do so. That's it.

I think part of the reason why Telltale opted to do monthly released was to quell this expectation. I think even the most irrational parts of the audience realize that monthly releases can't offer dramatically different games. More folks realizing this would do no harm.

May 19, 2009 at 9:06 PM  
Blogger Alan Jack said...

Just a brief thought - most episodic games I've come into contact with are linear, single player, design-driven affairs. I've had a lot of fun thinking of what might happen if you took episodic games away from there. Creating a more balanced share of authorship, allowing player-created content to feed into episodic updates ... there's a world of possibility in it.

May 22, 2009 at 4:23 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alan Something along the lines of Little Big Planet, but with some kind of official sanction? Valve has done that a little with the inclusion of outstanding community maps in TF2, but it would be interesting to see what happened if this was pushed further.

You've also presaged my post for this weekend, about the dangers of user-generated content. Stay tuned.

May 22, 2009 at 8:32 AM  

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